AUBURN, Ala. — When Kirby Smart looks across the field to the Auburn sideline in Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Saturday, he’ll see several familiar faces.
The Georgia coach recruited standouts such as Tigers defensive lineman Marlon Davidson and senior linebacker Tre’ Williams. He also went after ESPN top-10 prospect Stephen Roberts, a 5-foot-11, 189-pound safety from Opelika, Ala.
“Stephen Roberts is a kid I recruited hard,” Smart said. “He was committed to Alabama. He’s become a really good player.”
Smart and his Georgia Bulldogs will do everything in their power to take down No. 4 Auburn in the SEC Championship Game, but when time expires, regardless of the outcome, the Bulldogs coach hopes “to shake their hand and tell them how proud I am of them, of where they’ve come.”
For Roberts, that has meant developing into one of Auburn’s defensive leaders. Though not in the spotlight as much as fellow safety Tray Matthews or at the podium as much as Williams, Roberts was vital to taking down No. 1 Georgia and No. 1 Alabama in a span of three weeks. He’ll be just as important as Auburn battles for the conference title this weekend.
“Steve played great. He came and made a lot of open-field tackles,” linebacker Deshaun Davis said after the Iron Bowl. “But Steve probably has the biggest heart on the defense, man. He gives us everything he has, everything we need, even on special teams. We appreciate him.”
One of the most critical parts to dethroning the two top-ranked teams was stopping the run. Auburn likes to use its safeties at times to do that. And as defensive coordinator Kevin Steele likes to put it, that means in the SEC West you get “to do it quite frequently.”
At certain points this season, mostly due to minor injuries, Auburn’s secondary was one of the team’s biggest concerns in terms of depth. Roberts didn’t hesitate when asked to switch from safety to corner. He simply did as he was asked.
There’s no doubt Roberts is important. Still, teammates aren’t sure he’s received enough pats on the back for his efforts in his final season on The Plains.
“ Stephen‘s been great all year,” cornerback Carlton Davis said. “I don’t think he gets enough credit for the things that he does. He’s just been amazing for us. He stepped up so much from last year and I’m just so happy for him.”
Steele jokes that Roberts hasn’t grown that much in his four years. His stature is similar to when he arrived on campus as a freshman. Yet the Broyles Award finalist can’t deny the progress Roberts has made between the white lines.
The biggest jump has been in Roberts’ ability to determine what another team is running based on process of elimination. It all happens quickly.
“So eliminating what they’re not going to do, which really allows you to focus in and take away what might happen,” Steele said. “He’s really good at that and has grown a lot in that area. A lot.”
There have been countless instances this season when even Steele has been impressed — even in Auburn’s recent win over Alabama.
“For example, the third down that got thrown into the end zone that we batted up and the tight end, the ball hit the ground, knock on wood,” Steele said. “That particular play, he came off afterwards and he wouldn’t have done this last year. We had a double on No. 3 and he was part of the double. He actually told 13 that it was Buffalo-Y-7. He told him what the play was because of the split and the alignment of No. 3.
“I promise you, he didn’t know where Buffalo was this time last year.”
Roberts likes to give Steele credit for his success. Back-to-back seasons under the coaching veteran have been invaluable.
“Being in the system for two years now, it just makes the defense a whole lot better,” Roberts said. “It makes your technique get a whole lot better. You know your job and know what you’re supposed to do. Just from that standpoint being in the system helps with our development. It can help everyone out tremendously. That’s one thing it did for me.”
Yet in the toughest times, such as after Auburn’s loss to LSU in Baton Rouge, it was Roberts who helped keep his team united. Without him, the Tigers might not have been victorious against Georgia and Alabama.
Defeating Georgia twice in a three-week span won’t be easy. Atlanta will feel far more like a road game than a neutral stage. And the Bulldogs will scrap to avenge an embarrassing loss in Jordan-Hare.
But with Roberts on the field, Auburn has a good chance of overcoming the challenges and taking home an SEC title.
“Either you can rebuild, or you can fall apart,” Roberts said. “That’s one thing we focused on this year is rebuilding. You may take a loss. Like our coaches was saying, in the NFL, there’s teams that have lost that still make the Super Bowl. It’s all about how you rebuild and focus on the task.”
The post How senior safety Stephen Roberts became everything Auburn needs on defense appeared first on SEC Country.
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